What’s the deal with proteins and are they really that important?
In my analogy in the last post, I referred to the proteins as the relatives who are always invited and sometimes even become the majority at your meal party. Still there is much controversy and it seems like people are confused by which kinds of proteins are best to eat and why they are important anyway.
Let me explain a few basic things about proteins first:
- Proteins are compounds made up of Amino Acids (AA’s)
- There are eight to nine amino acids which are essential for our health and which need to be consumed through the diet only (I refer to a protein, which has all eight of these AA’s, as ‘complete protein’)
- All other AA’s can be synthesized by the body or are not essential but can become essential under specific circumstances
- The body contains 10,000 to 50,000 different proteins
- Proteins are the building blocks for all of our body structures like skin, blood, muscle, bones and cells — pretty much everything in the body is made out of different combinations of Amino Acids
- Hormones and Enzymes are made out of proteins
- You can gain body fat by eating too much protein
In Essence: for every kind of protein you have different combinations of Amino Acids, sometimes also in Combination with Minerals to make up a particular part of your body, hormones or enzymes.
Each of these curls represents a strand of amino acids. Together they make up a protein.
When we think of protein deficiency, oftentimes we picture children in undeveloped countries with swollen bellies but hardly anyone ever pictures the population in developed countries as deficient in proteins.
Sadly, the later is true. The following population groups are at high risk to suffer from illnesses or symptoms that are caused by insufficient intake of the right Amino Acids:
- Children whose diet is high in sugar and low in high quality whole foods
- Teenagers who eat high processed food, junk food or diet frequently (children and teenagers have a very high demand for proteins because of rapid growth and/or increased hormone production)
- Elderly people who have an insufficient food intake in general
- Recovering patients who need to rebuild a lot of their body tissues
- Homeless people, people with addictions or mental health problems because of low quality/quantity foods
These are just the groups with major and obvious health problems caused by a lack of protein intake. There are many people who simply don’t consume enough or the right amino acids to meet their requirements for proteins.
If that happens, the body will dismantle its own body structure to provide the missing building block to make up a certain protein that is needed.
That might work a few times, but if the body constantly needs to break down cells and structures, eventually consequences will show and often they are not obviously connected to a lack of amino acids.
This is why I would like you to look at the different functions of proteins first. Further below we will look more closely at the foods that are helpful to meet your requirements and we will also talk about the right amount of proteins in the diet.
These are the many functions that proteins fulfill:
1. Building materials for growth and maintenance
This is the reason why children, teenagers and high-performance athletes are important groups to watch their protein intake. Their needs are slightly higher than that of average people because their repair, growth and maintenance actions are more frequent.
However, the increase is only slight in comparison to someone who doesn’t do Sports at a higher level. We all need tissue and cell repair.
2. As Enzymes
As explained in the last post enzymes are important to break down molecules for digestion and energy conversion. Also, we rely in most processes on enzymes to change the rate of reactions or cause particular reactions. Many of them are reusable and designed for very particular purposes. It is fascinating to see all the ways that our body uses different enzymes — which are made out of proteins.
Many Amino Acids are precursors for hormones. This means that these AA’s need to be provided in order for a hormone to be built. This is a very important function of proteins, because not much will happen without hormones!
Let’s take Melatonin as an example:
Melatonin is the hormone that is produced when we want to relax and go to sleep. Now, it’s not that the body just produces Melatonin before it gets dark. It is a long process until the body is able to release Melatonin.
- The body needs to be supplied with efficient amounts of Tryptophan, which is one of the essential protein building blocks. This is found in brown rice, fish, nuts…
- Tryptophan is a precursor for Serotonin, which is the ‘feel-good-hormone’ Serotonin is produced only when there is enough Tryptophan and when the body is exposed to light. Someone who spends all day, every day inside in the dark will most likely lack Serotonin because the body doesn’t know that it is day and this hormone is needed.
- Towards the end of the day Serotonin gets converted to Melatonin which makes us relax, unwind and gives us a restful sleep.
- Immunoproteins – These are found in the blood and their purpose is to identify and neutralise foreign objects like bacteria and viruses. (On blood results they are called IgG, IgA, IgM, IgE and IgD)
- Transport – Our bodies are very cleverly designed! Some substances or molecules can’t enter certain areas because of their individual makeup. Take for instance fatty acids. They are not water-soluble and can’t travel in the blood stream by themselves. But in combination with proteins, they are able to travel with the bloodstream.
- Acid Regulation – Especially when the diet is high acidic or alcohol intake is high, the pH would be extremely low if it wasn’t for the balancing proteins. Because proteins are able to accept or release hydrogen ions they can control a positive or negative charge in the environment and therefor change the bodies pH.
- Regulation of body fluid balance – Let’s go back to the beginning, when I mentioned some children in undeveloped countries that are malnourished and have swollen bellies. This happens because these children lack protein.
The protein in blood plasma attracts water which causes the body fluids to stay inside of the cardiovascular system. However, if the protein content in the blood plasma is too low, the fluid leaks out faster than it can be reabsorbed.
This can also be caused by liver and kidney disease or large wounds.
Now that you know how vital this macronutrient, Protein is, I would like to show you how you can ensure that you provide all the right building blocks for your body to meet your daily needs. There are many foods which people don’t associate with proteins, but that contain essential Amino Acids and are vital for thriving health.
We all want these amazing things to happen in our body and doesn’t ‘suppresses appetite’ and ‘elevates mood’ sound wonderful?
I’d like to encourage you to make not only proteins, but good quality proteins a priority. As you could see throughout this article, we are pretty much made out of the proteins that we consume. Now think of the way some of those animals got raised and how the dairy products got produced. Many protein sources simply make up horrible tissues because the protein source itself was made up of toxic material. Not only can we change the way of farming by the products we buy, but we can also change the quality of our bones, tissues, hormones and enzymes by choosing grass fed meat, organic vegetables and toxic free grains and legumes.
We all agree now that we want more proteins in our life’s and want them to be of great quality, let’s quickly take a look at the right quantity. As explained at the top, our body will convert too much protein into fat and no one wants that.
To choose the right amount of proteins on your plate, simply measure with your hand:
For each meal take a piece of i.e. fish at the size and thickness of your palm. Naturally this will change the amount for every person in proportion to the body.
Also, if you eat a good variety of whole foods, you will get the whole range of not only essential amino acids, but also all the other ones which might not be essential to survive but are certainly beneficial.
I hope this post made sense to you and brings you value.
Next week we are looking at our fun friends the fats!